Japanese schoolboys check out plastic food (sampuru) replicas in the ancient city of Gujo Hachiman. All photos courtesy the author
Yuya Fujita is focused, leaning closely over the chopping board as he juliennes bright green sugar snaps with a large chef’s knife, his motions slow and meticulous. Next are carrots, ginger and lotus roots: impeccably uniform slivers in color-coded piles. A radio on a table behind him, amid food processors and cooking utensils, faintly plays Beyoncé as a kitchen alarm breaks the spell. Rushing to the oven, he lifts out a tray of baked ayu, a Japanese river fish and local specialty that will be the final touch to the dish he’s preparing. At first glance, the scene resembles one out of any restaurant kitchen—except nothing Fujita makes is actually edible.
In Japan, fake food is a multi-billion yen business and an almost century-old tradition of proud craftsmanship. Food replicas are common sights in izakayas—essentially tapas bars—as well as supermarkets and high-end restaurants throughout the country (and probably your nearest Chinatown), all on the assumption that their presence increases revenue. The purpose, then, is pretty straightforward: to look appetizing, and to offer potential consumers an idea of the selection, quantity and price. Even though it’s all literally fake, you might say it’s an honest advertising strategy, the very definition of what you see is what you get—except, of course, it won't be made of vinyl.
“It’s a Japanese preference,” says Fujita, 38, about the unique marketing tool, as he garnishes a mound of rice carefully portioned on a green leaf with the sliced vegetables. “It’s so that you can see what you eat. Japanese people are cautious.”
While China and South Korea constitute growing markets, the fine art of fake food is a distinctly Japanese phenomenon. Journalist Yasunobu Nose, who has written a book on the topic of replicas, theorizes that fake food appreciation is deeply linked to the Japanese preference of first ‘tasting with their eyes’ and rooted in the nation’s extraordinary appreciation of the visual aesthetics of food.
A convincing sampuru—derived from the English word ”sample” - サンプル—is a piece of art, and nearly all is made in Japan. Nothing is mass-produced, and most is still skillfully handmade by trained artists. Most is custom-made for each restaurant, which first dispatches pictures as well as samples of the real deal to the studio. This is the haute couture of fake food, even though wholesale retailers in big cities provide less costly “pret-a-porter” equivalents too. Still, plastic is definitely not synonymous with cheap: the replica food itself typically cost ten or twenty times as much as the dishes it advertises.
It all began in Gujo Hachiman, the ground zero of fake food. The unusual advertising strategy was first invented in this sleepy, ancient town—sometimes referred to as “little Kyoto”—in the Japanese Alps, some three hours from Tokyo, in 1917, and today the legacy lives on through ten artisanal workshops. Most of Japan’s fake food still hails from the township.
Fujita’s studio is in a 150-year old building in the picturesque town center and constitutes one of the city’s principal claims to fame. At a closer look, some things, admittedly, are a bit, well, off, at least as far as kitchens go: the lingering smell of melted plastic and thinners, the airbrush corner with its rainbow of paint cans, and artisan Kumada Kengo boring holes in cherry tomatoes with an industrial drill. In black t-shirt and jeans, rings and bracelets on both arms, Fujita is dressed more like an artist than a chef. A group of uniformed schoolboys peer into the tiny factory while examining samples of its artwork: a slice of raw wagyu beef, crispy gyozas and a never-melting green matcha icecream cone. Until you touch the rubbery surface, it all looks convincingly real.
Gujo is also the hometown of Takizo Iwasaki, who is widely credited as the father of fake food. According to the romanticized legend, Iwasaki had an epiphany as he watched over his sick wife by candlelight (they couldn’t afford electricity), inspired by the patterns on the melted wax dropping on the tatami mat. After months of preparation, he allegedly presented a realistic wax omelet, garnished by ketchup, to his wife—who could barely tell it was fake. Another, more macabre, version of the story suggests Iwasaki simply saw business opportunity in wax replicas of diseased skin and organs commonly used in medicine studies at the time and decided to pioneer what would become the standard technique for the food industry.
Iwasaki proved to be a visionary: the time was ripe for a fake food revolution. The combination of urbanization, booming eating-out culture and the influx of strange, foreign foods created the perfect niche for sampuru in the 1920s. From there followed a snowball effect of success: soon, one of Tokyo’s major department stores tried the new advertising strategy and found its visitors began to skyrocket. Fast forward and Iwasaka Co. Ltd. is an empire claiming to manufacture 80 percent of Japan’s sampuru under the axiom, “Expressive power of replica food are endless.”
Indeed, today’s replicas are multipurpose tools. Fake food is frequently used for commercial photo shoots (it’s especially practical for frozen desserts) as well as education. They’re efficient, too: as many customers decide what they want before entering the restaurant, ordering is (supposedly) faster. And unintentionally—because fake food long predates mass tourism—it is also a lifesaver for non-Japanese speaking visitors to the country as it eliminates most of the menu-guessing to just pointing.
Nowadays, replicas generally look deceptively similar to the real deal—and sometimes better. You know it’s good when kids try to eat it, says artist Yuko Tanaka, 47, laughing as she separates fried eggs from their molds with an air gun. It wasn’t always so convincing: back in the early days of sham cuisine, replicas were made of wax and due to that material’s unfortunate tendency to melt or fade with time, the second generation replicas took over in the 1980s. Today fake food is made by the far more life-like and durable polyvinyl chloride—PVC—and has a lifespan of virtually forever.
Anything can be copied, claims Fujita, who has just processed an order for a Turkish restaurant. Every ingredient in his fish dish—to be delivered to a local restaurant—has been prepared from scratch. First, a mold is created by pressing the food that is to be replicated into a piece of silicone. Then, liquid, colored plastic is poured into the mold and baked for 10-30 minutes until solid. Finally, the item is airbrushed, hand-painted and finished with a glossy lacquer, before being assembled into the desired dish. The hardest part is to get the colors right, and the manufacturing processes often imitate the real thing so much that the preparation itself is duplicated: rice dishes, for instance, combine individual grains with adhesive.
Fujita, who ended up in the industry because he craved a career with a creative outlet, has made counterfeit food for a decade. Coincidentally, this is about how long it takes to master making a bowl of fake ramen, one of Japan’s simplest comfort foods. All items are manufactured separately and then assembled in bowls carefully matched with those used at the restaurant. The noodles are strings covered in plastic, while roast pork slices, chopped leeks and boiled egg halves are molded before all is painstakingly composed in solid plastic broth. A masterpiece in Fujita’s studio shows off the perfection: noodles suspended from a pair of chopsticks floating in the air as if lifted by an invisible hand above the bowl.
Like most fine art, fake food is expensive: a juicy steak sets you back about $20, a single slice of sushi $25, a jug of beer $60. A full meal is far pricier than that. Fujita’s work is exported all over the country: from northern Hokkaido and Tokyo as well as local restaurants. With about 50 producers of varying size nationwide, it’s a cutthroat business with closely guarded secrets and continuous innovation. Rough estimates approximate the industry at about $60 to $90 million annually. It’s not unusual for a restaurant to spend thousands of dollars on its display food, though a less expensive option is to rent installations monthly. It might be the only consumer good in the world where the counterfeit version is costlier than the original.
Even so, the golden days of handcrafted sampuru may be over. That today’s fake food lasts for eternity has one unfortunate side-effect: Japanese demand for plastic products has flattened out as items rarely need to be replaced. Instead, fake food tourism has become a welcome side-business, and Fujita’s 10-artist collective is right at its epicenter.
Gujo has transformed its sampuru industry into a tourist attraction, along with a yearly dance festival and an immaculate samurai castle. Contests between local factories are held annually, and in the town center, Iwasaki’s faded portrait looks down on visitors from a glass shelf outside his factory, just above his alleged original fake omelet from 1932—good as new—and a stones throw away from his bust.
While Western markets are negligible, sampuru nonetheless appeal to foreigners. Not many make the pilgrimage to Gujo, but Tokyo’s kitchen supply street of Kappabashi (and the equivalent neighborhood in Osaka), where designated stores offer wholesale sampuru to restaurants, attest to its popularity. In 1980, Victoria & Albert museum in London devoted an entire exhibition to Japanese plastic food. More recently, food replica giant Maizuru opened a souvenir shop in Tokyo Skytree.
Fujita’s studio attracts a steady flow of visitors of all ages, from young kids to senior citizens, all of whom marvel at its playful exhibits: ice-cream sundaes decorated with sushi, tempura beetles, spaghetti with gravity-defying forks. One display dares them to distinguish real Oreos from fake. Some try DIY sampuru; for about ten bucks, visitors can make their own set of takeaway tempura. Under the guidance of one of the artists, melted wax (the old-school method is safer for beginners) is poured in cold water and then shaped around plastic shrimps, pumpkin slices or green peppers. Few leave without kitschy omiyage (souvenirs): a seared salmon key chain, a takoyaki ear cleaning stick or nigiri phone decoration. For good measure, all are labeled “DO NOT EAT” in both Japanese and English.
Constantly cooking appetizing food that you can never eat might seem like the ultimate tease. Tanaka, who’s worked in the studio for seven years, admits as much, smiling: “Sometimes I keep looking at my watch, like, is it lunchtime yet?”
Kim Wall is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, BBC, South China Morning Post, and other publications.